Ready for a Dog's Life?

When a potential employer signals from the very start that you are a lower form of life, walk away. It's that simple

By Liz Ryan

Eight years ago, when I left the corporate world, I engaged in a battle with myself. One side of me said: "This is your chance to do something new! Make your own schedule! Get off the treadmill!" The other side said: "Isn't it nice to have a big office, an admin assistant, and a staff? It's so great to be part of a team, and to have memberships at all the major airport clubs." I was torn.

I said to my husband: "The only way a job opportunity could reach me would be if someone called me at home. No one knows my e-mail address. I'm not even sure our phone is listed in my name. If someone really wants to reach me about a job, they will. But I won't make any overtures. It's up to the Universe now."


  Sure enough, after I'd had about a week of liberty, my phone rang. It was a headhunter from a distant state, pitching what he described as the greatest opportunity ever to hit his inbox. "It sounds a lot like what I've been doing for 10 years," I told him. "What's the challenge for me, or the benefit for my resume?"

"Oh, there's this and there's that, and you'll be responsible for X, Y, and Z, and it's the opportunity of a lifetime, the streets are paved with gold, and you're the perfect person to do this job!" gushed the recruiter.

I held firm. "Look," I said. "I have four small kids and no interest in moving to that state, especially now that I have the world's greatest opportunity to pick my next assignment."

"But the CEO is in love with your profile!" the recruiter continued. "You wouldn't have to move here, you could commute. The CEO wants to talk to you, anytime it's convenient for you!" Flattery is a powerful motivator. I caved. "Okay, I'll talk to the CEO," I told him. Great! We set up the call for the following Tuesday.


  That's when the Universe decided to teach me a lesson. At the appointed hour the phone remained silent. I had hired a babysitter to take the kids to the park, so I sat. At 40 minutes past the appointed hour, the company finally called. But it wasn't the CEO, it was the administrative assistant to the COO, who informed me that her boss would be pinch-hitting. He would be along in a moment, she said.

As the woman explained all this, she dropped another bullet point on me. "If this call goes well," she said, "we'd like you here in our offices for an in-person interview tomorrow."

You mean, as in 24 hours from now? Gee, there must be a mistake. I'm the hotly-pursued candidate whose profile so entranced the CEO, remember? Now you're telling me that if I say a sufficient number of acceptable things in this delayed call with a person who isn't even my prospective boss, that I would then be summoned? On short notice? I'm so sorry. You must have mistaken me for someone who has no life.


  I was laughing as I said that. "It's not your fault," I told the flustered woman. "The headhunter probably told you the same thing he told me, in reverse -- that I was dying to take this job and could talk to you or meet you anytime it's convenient." Oh, well. I hung up, didn't talk to the COO, and obviously didn't get on a plane the next day.

Believe it or not, this isn't a rant against headhunters. Like the rest of us, they are just doing their jobs.

Rather, I'm taking a poke at the logic companies employ when filling key positions. Think about it: Would a candidate who sits by the phone for 40 minutes past a scheduled interview time, and then happily hops the next plane to interview in person, really be someone you'd want in a senior role?

What about self-esteem? What about life's other obligations? Is it mandatory for the candidate to be subservient and desperate for approval? I would hope not.


  Dogs, being smarter than some humans, understand what I mean. In any canine interaction, it's obvious within milliseconds which is the top dog. Pet owners talk about dominant and submissive behaviors. Humans display those, too, but we don't recognize them, all the time, for what they are.

In the experience I just described, the company approached me in the Alpha Dog posture (tail and head high, hair on the back of their necks standing up) and expected me to roll onto my back. No dice. How many times have all of us, as job candidates, cooled our heels in office lobbies waiting for an interviewer, or waited three weeks past the date when a post-interview phone was promised us?

Companies who live in Alpha Dog mode are guaranteed of one thing: the people they hire will not be top dogs in their industries, because they're required to show submissive behavior just to get in the door.


  When will companies learn that a little humility will pay off in the form of smarter, more confident team members, and everything that comes with that, including better ideas and higher margins? Why do business leaders and human resources people continue to delude themselves into the idea that demanding: "Please grovel upon entering the building" somehow glorifies them?

It's an obvious trade-off: I'll gratify my ego by treating job candidates like cattle, and in return give up the chance to hire the best and brightest people available, who'll find opportunities elsewhere. But ego is a powerful thing. People will make bad decisions to enjoy a little ego gratification surprisingly often.

So, it pays to keep your Dog Logic radar on high alert when you're job-hunting. There are signals that will tell you that only subservient doggies need apply, and you should watch for these in particular:By Liz Ryan

• A recruiter from the company calls you out of the blue three months after receiving your resume, and is mildly annoyed that that particular moment isn't a convenient time for you to chat.

• You have a pleasant phone conversation with a company representative, and then are notified of your pre-scheduled interview time -- not asked whether it's convenient.

• You call the company to change a scheduled interview because of an emergency, and are greeted with a stony silence or a long, exasperated sigh.

• You appear on time for your interview, wait half an hour, and then are deposited in an interview room the size of a washing machine to wait some more.

• The person who interviews you doesn't tell you her position or her relationship to the job for which you're applying -- and can't answer your questions about the role.

• You feel that your interview has gone well, but hear nothing back from the company for weeks. Even if you receive an offer at this point, make no mistake, you've been Alpha-Dogged.

What can a candidate do to counteract these dominant behaviors? Be clear about what you need from the get-go. You don't have to be huffy or overdo it. Top dogs never do. Just explain:

• That time isn't convenient for me, let's find another.

• I only have an hour and a half available that day, so we'll need to be right on schedule.

• I'm so sorry, but I'd forgotten about that opportunity, since I haven't heard from you for weeks. I couldn't consider an offer without more conversation.

As tough as many local job markets still are, good candidates are hard to find. Some job openings may be so appealing that you can withstand an annoying Alpha Doggish move or two. But if you let those stack up, you'll discover that you've lost all negotiating power. There are companies and assignments that are better avoided than taken, however appealing they sound on paper or on a recruiter's lips.


  If you're on the other side of the desk, take a look at your recruiting practices. Confidentially survey the job candidates you've met over the past year to get their honest opinion: How did we treat you during the recruiting process?

It can be tough to acknowledge that your company is full of itself (and possibly full of something else), to the detriment of your talent-acquisition program. But that kind of shock can lead to positive change, too.

Or if you're really in love with the Alpha Dog posturing thing, you can add a note to your employment ads: Please respond with your resume and salary history, a cover letter -- and a low whine.

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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